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Manufacturer or distributor? Both, but let’s help apparel brands reshore production

By Bart Taylor September 30, 2019, 07:25 am MDT

A reader in California took us to task last week for "promoting" O'Neal USA, a sports apparel company we featured in CompanyWeek. A legend in the powersports market, Jim O'Neal's jerseys are a motocross staple. 

He also moved apparel manufacturing offshore, a reality not lost on our reader. Instead, the reader said, "highlight and promote companies that keep production/manufacturing and business in California/USA. This story should be sent to Sacramento and DC to discuss the problems with the high cost of doing business here and the tariffs."

We do feature those companies, every week, but he raises an important issue. Should O'Neal be celebrated as a manufacturer, brand, distributor, or what? Our reader suggested "a U.S. Corporate Office and Warehouse."

Does it matter? Yes. Because companies that do travel the last mile to manufacture in America think it does. And they're right. Navigating the issues that bedevil companies like O'Neal, to keep production in the U.S., is often the hard way to go. We should notice. And buy their products.

But in apparel and outdoor industry, O'Neal is the rule, not the exception. Jim O'Neal's explanation for manufacturing offshore -- wages, environmental laws, qualified labor -- is common. 

We can agree that most designers would keep their means of production closer to home if they could. And the good news is that we're developing more domestic production infrastructure. Technology is a catalyst. 

CompanyWeek Editor Eric Peterson's story this week on Elementum 3D is one in a series we've published that demonstrates how additive manufacturing is becoming a mainstream production option. And it's only getting better. Elementum 3D is expanding "the materials library" by fueling printers with aluminum, copper, and custom materials, and composites, tungsten, and tantalum in the pipeline. 

Yet for O'Neal and others in apparel, production solutions are elusive. Where Nike is on the cusp of printing an entire shoe in America, and doing so in volume, apparel brands still rely on sewers. Innovation comes slowly to apparel production. 

But there's a path, and it’s navigable. The physical act of sewing may be the last thing to change, but that shouldn't slow us from innovating everywhere else in the apparel supply chain -- including what we buy. Supporting small, independent brands is an important step; they keep production home if there's a way. Focusing on technology that fuels new prototyping and production is a given, including, as Elementum 3D's Jacob Nuechterlein says, training a new generation of designers. "There aren't that many people who know how to design for 3D printing," he says.

Lastly, let's keep pushing to develop new production and prototyping facilities companies like O'Neal can support -- with business. Big guys like Nike and Under Armour are funding their own. We should all work toward democratizing enabling technologies by raising new centers of manufacturing innovation and excellence.

In doing so, we'll help O'Neal and others keep production onshore. Then we'd have no doubt what to call them.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at btaylor@companyweek.com.

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